Yarl's Wood: An object lesson in how evil happens

Bad people, bad management and institutional failure all contributed to what happened at the Yarl's Wood detention centre.

You hear a lot of things when you’re a journalist. And ninety-five per cent of the time, you know they’re not true, or wildly exaggerated. And every so often you think they might be true, but you don’t know how on earth you’re going to stand them up, and you also know that unless you’ve got a watertight case, you’re going to get your publication’s arse sued off.

That smoking gun: who knows when it’ll turn up? All you can do is keep making inquiries, bide your time, report on other things - and maybe your biggest fear is ending up like one of those old Fleet Street soaks on the documentaries about Jimmy Savile: “Sure, we all knew, but what could we do? We were just journalists.”

The public doesn’t have a lot of time for this sentiment. Maybe the public’s right. Dunno. Most hacks I know try their best. But then they’re also idiots, myself included. Dogs chasing cars, to quote a famous film villain. Or these days more likely to be sniffing each other’s arseholes on social media.

So: Yarl’s Wood. I’d heard plenty of murmurs from solicitors and campaigners before this weekend. But I hadn’t heard explicit details such as those laid out in the Observer’s front page story. To quote Nick Cohen’s accompanying comment piece:

According to Tanja's account, a male guard locks the door. He pulls out his earpiece, perhaps to make sure he is not disturbed, and after some initial touching, he pushes his penis in her face. He laughs when he ejaculates in her mouth – so confident is he that he can escape punishment.

I’d written about Yarl’s Wood many times before, but found it frustrating because I couldn’t really write about what I suspected to be a regular occurrence. I remember one former inmate talking to me on the phone from there last year: these words in her thick African accent - “They are BAD people. They are BAD people,” again and again. She’d come here from a war zone. What was going on? “I don’t like to say. They are BAD.”

Let’s quote Cohen again:

The corporate guards confine her and can punish her. One starts thrusting himself on her. What does she do? She could think that she has to go along with him or he'll put her on the next plane out. Or she could believe that if she does what she is told she will be in a relationship with an Englishman and that somehow this "affair" (if that is not too romantic a word) will allow her to stay in the country.

Bad people. But I couldn’t prove it, and there was plenty else to cover. I could have written a piece a week about the sort of people we send there. Only a couple of days ago I received an email about Evenia Mawongera, who has just been sent there pending deportation to Zimbabwe. She’s an outspoken critic of the Mugabe regime, and has been living in Leicester with her children and grandchildren for the past 10 years. 

On 22 August, she received a special commendation in the Good Neighbour Awards in recognition of her contribution to the community. She’s a member of the Zimbabwe Association Choir and is one of the people who performed for the Queen when she came to Leicester in June 2012 to mark the start of her Diamond Jubilee tour. She has no family in Zimbabwe. Her children and grandchildren, with whom she has been living for the past 10 years, are British citizens.

That’s the kind of person we keep sending to Yarl’s Wood.

And I know what Evenia faces. I’ve written about the history of the place. About a woman who was dragged out of her room naked in order to force her removal, and a resulting hunger strike among the detainees. About the woman suffering from kidney failure who was left sitting in her own piss in the van on the way to the centre. About the treatment of pregnant women in there. And so on.

So I’m glad the smoking gun eventually appeared - from a source, as Cohen points out, that very soon will cease to exist:

We would not have published a word about Yarl's Wood were it not for the heroic efforts of Harriet Wistrich, the best feminist lawyer I know. But she will not be able to carry on bringing cases like these to the public's attention for much longer.

The legal aid cuts are not directed against fat cat lawyers, who continue to make their fortunes in the City, but against solicitors such as her, who do well if they make £40,000 a year. More seriously, they are directed against their clients.

***

Some commenters on my previous pieces about Yarl’s Wood have complained about my apparent left wing bias. If only I took politics that seriously. I just tend to write about things that aren’t working. Like most writers who’ve spent enough time following our political elite, I believe that when you vote, you’re choosing between slightly different styles of management. And the most important distinction in the management isn’t between left or right - it’s between good and bad. And on many issues - perhaps most - you’ll get much the same kind of good and bad from all the parties.

Bad management doesn’t sound all that serious. But once the system malfunctions, the results can be despicable. Hillsborough, Mid Staffs, a vulnerable young woman in a detention centre giving blowjobs she doesn’t want to give. For evil to thrive, all that has to happen etc.

And we’ve dealt with immigration badly whoever’s in power. In part - and it’s the same story with crime - that’s because our lawmakers know that managing the public perception is far more important than whatever’s going on in reality.

We’re a funny lot when it comes to this issue. I guess as a nation we’re summed up by one encounter the TV chef Lorraine Pascale described on Twitter: “Landlord said to me all 'n words' should go home & were not welcome. He said I could stay though as his wife liked my cakes.”

As I once wrote here, in recent years the rate of immigration to Britain has increased – as has the rate of migration around the world. It’s hardly surprising this should spark concerns on a small island with a grandiose history, an uncertainty about its future standing in the world, and an obscenely subtle set of cultural nuances.

But then T S Eliot was right about humankind not being able to stand too much reality. Send those scrounging foreign bastards/job thieves (delete as applicable; or maybe keep both) home, except for that nice old Indian couple who live up the road and that Spanish bloke in our local footy team. Damn the EU opening the floodgates, right up until we retire to the Algarve.

We’re a nation of tedious hypocrites. And that means our politicians have felt they have to be seen to be doing the right thing, even if they’re not. That’s how you end up with the crass hilariousness of the “racist van” patrolling the streets while the Border Agency staggers from one crisis to another, ruining lives in the process, until the coalition finally put it out of its misery.

At the time Theresa May said it was “secretive and defensive”. It was, but it was also unsure of itself, and like many government entities, it felt the safest option was to give contracts to the giant corporations, put the dirty jobs at arm’s length - how bad could it be? They know what they’re doing, right? Institutional failure. It’s an object lesson in how evil happens.

Sorry for the indulgent trip down commentary lane: back to chasing cars now. If the weekend’s taught me anything, it’s that it’s the right thing to do.

Police outside Yarl's Wood after a fire there in 2003. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt